Shirakawa, the World’s Rarest Japanese Single Malt Whisky

The world’s rarest Japanese whisky, Shirakawa 1958 Single Malt from Takara Shuzo Co. Ltd., was released on the 13th September 2022. But where does it come from and how has it developed its legendary reputation?

Shirakawa 1958 is a single malt whisky from the lost Japanese distillery, Shirakawa, which was located 200km North of Tokyo, Japan. The whisky produced was rumoured to be exquisite, but destined only for blending and never to be captured as a single malt until the collaboration between Tomatin Distillery and Takara Shuzo. This remarkable and incredibly rare expression was the only official single malt bottling from Shirakawa Distillery; limited to 1,500 bottles globally and is the earliest single vintage Japanese whisky ever bottled.

“There are no known examples of Japanese Whisky claiming to be from a Single Vintage that predate Shirakawa 1958,” confirms Stefan van Eycken, the pre-eminent authority on the world of Japanese whisky and distilling. “Even though Shirakawa Distillery was one of the pioneers of malt whisky making in Japan, the liquid was never officially available as a single malt. This limited 1,500 bottle release will see the Japanese Whisky category, one of the most sought-after categories of spirit in the world, continue to grow from strength to strength”.

Stephen Bremner, Managing Director of Tomatin Distillery Co. Ltd. had become intrigued by parent company Takara Shuzo’s history of malt whisky production in Japan and why so little was known about this aspect of the company’s history. Determined to uncover more, he pieced together anecdotal information from previous employees about whisky production and searched for long lost documents that might shed some light on Shirakawa’s single malt Japanese whisky making past.

The final remaining parcel was identified in Takara Shuzo’s Kurokabegura in 2019. The liquid had been distilled in 1958, aged in cask, then transferred to ceramic jars at the distillery. When Shirakawa closed, it was put into stainless steel tanks at Takara Shuzo’s factory in Kyushu where it lay untouched until now.

Blended

Shirakawa Distillery was built in the Fukushima Prefecture, 200km North of Tokyo, in 1939 and demolished in 2003. In 1951 it became one of the first distilleries in Japan to produce malt whisky and it continued to do so uninterrupted until 1969. The vast majority of this malt was blended in the ‘King Whisky’ brand. In 2019, Single Malt Whisky from Shirakawa Distillery was discovered. At some point in time the whisky had been transferred into stainless steel tanks and slowly forgotten about. The 1958 vintage was bottled and exists as the only official Single Malt bottling from Shirakawa Distillery. The 1958 release is the earliest known single vintage Japanese whisky ever bottled and, though production details are unclear, is from a time when the distillery used predominantly Japanese malted barley and Mizunara oak casks. There are no plans to reopen the Shirakawa Distillery – it was closed and its buildings demolished in 2003. In 2011 Takara Shuzo donated the land to the Fukushima prefecture to build emergency housing to accommodate people displaced by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Nose – This aged single malt displays complex layers of waxy oak-driven aromas whilst retaining the vibrancy of a truly exceptional spirit. Sweet fruit and nut in the form of marzipan, candied pineapple and orange liqueur are to the fore, gradually making way for more organic notes of cut grass, honeysuckle and coconut. The seductive scent of exotic incense captures waves of spices, floral and woody aromas.

Palate – The balance of maturity and vibrancy continues well onto the palate. An almost effervescent apple and zingy lime curd are quickly balanced by soft marzipan and white chocolate. This mix of fruit and nut evolves into a tropical trail mix with a dusting of cinnamon and ginger.

Finish – In time, the fruits dissipate leaving a soft nuttiness, light spice and a touch of smoke.

Production

Although much of the Shirakawa story remains unknown, a production summary book from March 1990 provides a wealth of information on malt whisky production at Shirakawa which falls into three periods.

The first period covers the years from 1951 to 1957. During that period, domestic barley was used and mashing was done in one go, with the water temperature between 55-65°C and then gradually increased to 80°C. The fermentation time was 4 days at 25°C and the distillation took place in two stainless steel pot stills heated with steam coils. The middle cut averaged 65%abv. The spirit was then reduced to just under 60%abv and filled into 350-litre casks made domestically from Tohoku and Hokkaido mizunara (Japanese oak).

The second period covers the years from 1958 to 1966 and the switch to copper pot stills would have resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of the spirit produced. During this period, the distillery kept working mainly with domestic malted barley, supplemented with the occasional load of imported malted barley. For the mashing they switched to two waters – the first at 62°C for 3 hours, the second at 65°C for 2 hours – and sometimes, most likely during the summer months, a short third-water phase – 15 minutes at 80°C – to keep the wort free from bacterial contamination. The fermentation was increased to 5 days, and as mentioned, the distillation took place in twin copper pots. Spirit was collected at 73.1-57.1%abv, quite a wide middle cut, making for an average still strength of 66.7%. Domestic casks of the type mentioned above remained the go-to for maturation, but American white oak casks (presumably virgin-oak casks) and “imported casks” (it’s unclear what exactly that meant) were also used from time to time.

The third period covers the last two years of the 60s, 1968-1969. During this time, the distillery used mainly imported malted barley. For the mashing, they had settled on three phases: the first at 60°C for 3 hours, the second at 65°C for 2 hours and the third at 80°C for 15 minutes. The fermentation remained 5 days and the middle cut was adjusted upward, with spirit collected at 74.6-60.8%abv, averaging 68.5%. There are no indications as to what cask types were used during this period.

According to the two former employees, the malt whisky production kit included a stainless steel mash tun with a capacity of 18,000L, five or six stainless fermenters of the same capacity, which were also used for shochu making; and two copper pot stills with a 9,000L capacity each. Rare photos of the stills, including the inside of one of the stills, show two fairly squat pots of almost identical shape – the spirit still slightly more squat than the wash still – with straight heads and descending lyne-arms – slightly more pronounced on the wash still than the spirit still – and both indirect-heated.

A production summary book from March 1990 shows that from 1958, when this whisky was distilled, to 1966 the vast majority of casks used at Shirakawa were 350-litre in capacity and made domestically from Tohoku and Hokkaido mizunara (Japanese) oak. However, American white oak and “imported casks” were also used from time to time. Although it would be logical to assume that these imports began later in the period in discussion, and sensory analysis points to the use of Mizunara oak in the Shirakawa 1958.

Experts

Stefan Van Eycken, author of Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan is the preeminent authority on Japanese whisky. He has sampled these whiskies and said: “Not only was this an amazing find, but its backstory is unlike any other whisky I’ve ever heard about… It’s a remarkable whisky which clearly has spent a long time in cask, but which is remarkably vibrant. It’s mature, and elegant with a waxy feel, sweet fruits, incense, and spices.”

Dave Broom, world whisky expert and author of over a dozen whisky books including The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky said: “Nose: Resinous, slight dry earth, dried citrus peels, a hint of wax. Aromatic. A drop of water makes it more vibrant and also shows clear maturity as well as a hint of incense. Exotic. The palate is expansive with a succulent texture, hints of fragrant grass. Fruits emerge in the middle. Nicely balanced and persistent on the finish. Layered, spiced, and dry. Water brings out ash from an incense burner, a satisfying mouthfeel and surprisingly perky acidity. The finish picks up that mint and makes it more camphor like. It was good to see such obvious cask-aged maturity present suggesting that first period was a lengthy one. Light oxidation has added to the overall quality without flattening aroma.”

Investment

RRP of the Single Malt Japanese Whisky from Takara Shuzo Co. Ltd., released & distributed by Tomatin Distillery Co. Ltd and limted to just 1,500 bottles worldwide, is £25,000. This is much more expensive than the current oldest Japanese single malt, Saburomaru 1960, but Saburomaru distillery is still in operation and continues to produce whisky so it does not have the “end game factor” that closed distilleries do. The 1960 was produced in a continuous still so, although it is bottled as a single malt, it does not meet the same batch production criteria as Shirakawa. While it is impossible to guarantee how any investment will perform, historical performance has shown that investment in Japanese whisky, particularly from closed distilleries, can provide incredible returns. Scotch Whisky 101’s Japanese 100 Index has grown 530.88% since 29/12/2014 and continues to deliver double-digit annual growth. Of the 100 bottles in this Index, 86 are from closed distilleries. Shirakawa, as a closed distillery that will only ever release two official bottlings, is the rarest Japanese whisky in the world.

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